In the days, weeks and months after Sept. 11, Americans heard the refrain that their nation would never be the same.
While the Transportation Security Administration and legislation to create the Homeland Security Department are concrete signs of change, several national security and foreign policy experts say many immediate social changes stemming from the attacks are now fading.
Meanwhile, despite the new laws and new commitments to combat terrorism, many of the experts agree that the country needs to begin addressing the roots of the problem in order to effectively prevent future attacks.
Protecting the Targets
The most obvious, and likely the most permanent changes since Sept. 11, have come in the government’s work to combat terrorism.
Building security has been strengthened around the country—airport security is in the process of a complete make-over, and a new “shadow government” is in place to provide continuity in the case of a new attack.
But Juliette Kayyem ’91, executive director of the Kennedy School of Government’s executive session on domestic preparedness, says that the initial response—harden and protect every target across the board—has gradually given way to a more nuanced approach to terrorism.
“We have gone from tremendous unfocused activity—a sort of a Pavlovian response to Sept. 11—to a much more realistic assessment that not every city can be prepared all the time,” she says.
Kayyem says she expects that this reality will cause cities to specialize in different areas of anti-terrorism—biological attacks, for example—instead of setting the broad goal of fighting terrorism in general.
But while local authorities may develop their own areas of expertise, experts say governmental agencies must begin to work together.
The push for a department of homeland defense represents this blurring of lines between different agencies, according to John C. Reppert, executive director for the Belfer Center at the Kennedy School.
“We need to integrate various agencies for defense, and it’s not a concept we had before—all America’s wars were fought far away and we never had to physically defend ourselves,” he says. “This presented us with a very large first step.”
President of the World Peace Foundation and Lecturer in Public Policy Robert I. Rotberg says that the government should turn its attention in the future to consolidating its immigration information.
“We need to be more vigilant, particularly in the immigration area,” he says. “We need to get our computer systems between the FBI, the CIA, immigration and the Coast Guard interreadable.”
Reppert says he believes that the country now needs to examine the training and use of armed forces domestically as a prevention of future attacks, but that such action would require congressional legislation.
“This would develop more non-lethal capabilities, in which we could handle a [terrorist threat] without casualties,” he says.
A Pledge of Allegiance?
While flags and “United We Stand” signs proliferated in the weeks after Sept. 11 last year, public policy experts say that America’s patriotic reaction is shifting.
Amid repeated media attention to actions designed to combat terrorism by the government since Sept. 11, the American public has increasingly begun to question the curtailing of some civil liberties, according to David Little, Dunphy professor of the practice in religion, ethnicity and international conflict at Harvard Divinity School.
Little says the war on terrorism’s difference from wars throughout U.S. history have caused this short-lived peak in military and religious support.
Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, and even through the early stages of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, Americans carried “a sense of patriotism and support for an assertive military,” Little says.
“Immediately after the attacks there was a sense that America had been deeply wounded and had a right to retaliate,” he says. “There wasn’t much thought about the limits and restraints within which we should retaliate.”
But the long periods of virtual silence on the war’s progress and a lack of continued attacks has caused the public to lose interest in the battles—both those behind closed doors and half a world away.
“It’s difficult for the government to sustain that sense of moral outrage that is typical of the war experience,” he says.
Similarly, it is questionable whether the promises of increased civic participation made after the attacks have translated into action, says Thomas H. Sander, executive director of the Kennedy School’s Saguaro Seminar, who is in the process of measuring the impact of Sept. 11 on civic engagement.
He says that, historically, disasters have caused temporary increases in civil engagement, but “how long these surges last depends on the severity of what happened.”
One notable exception, Sander says, is World War II, which “ushered in far more civic engagement than generations before or after.”
Sander says current studies—looking to see whether the Sept. 11 response follows the rule or the exception—indicate that any surge in civic engagement was only temporary, although polls show that those under age 18 are taking on more civic duties.
“Nationwide polling of those 18 and older initially showed a big rise in civic attitude and trust of the government, with no big change in civic behavior,” he says. “But by March there was some decline in trust of the government.”
With the attacks one year in the past, Little says the hawkish attitude has faded and shifted into a concern about civil liberties.
“There is an interestingly increasing concern about the degree to which the government may be overstepping the bounds of propriety in regard to U.S. suspects,” Little says. “U.S. courts have been pretty forthcoming in underlining that attitude.”
Americans, he says, exhibited a similar pattern in terms of religious observance: They began attending services in “great numbers” after the attacks, but observance is now returning to pre-Sept. 11 levels.
Swanee Hunt, executive director of the Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program and adjunct lecturer in public policy, says this religious shift is normal.
“When there is some kind of catastrophe like we’ve had, you’ll see it creates openings in the way people are thinking,” she says. “You see some movement toward religion as people look for security.
But Hunt says she would not be surprised if religious interest was returning to normal levels.
“People have short memories,” she says. “After all, this is the country that invented instant tea. The important thing is that there are lasting changes as well.”
Little said one of these “lasting changes” is the dialogues that have begun among different religious groups.
“Americans want to understand Islam and what it means,” he says. “This is a very healthy thing.”
Roots and Symptoms
This increased interest in Islam provides perhaps the best approach to preventing future attacks, experts say, because it provides a chance to address the underlying cause of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“We’ve obviously made a bit of headway in significantly damaging the corporate headquarters of al-Qaeda, but this is really a Band-Aid approach,” says Jessica Stern, a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School, whose book The Ultimate Terrorists became a best-seller in the weeks after last year’s attacks.
“We’ve been addressing the immediate danger, and we haven’t had time to think about the long-term efforts that would get at the root causes,” Stern says. “We’ve been addressing the symptoms.”
Ziad Munson, a lecturer on sociology, who is teaching Sociology 167, “The Social Origins of Terrorism,” this fall, says that it is necessary for the U.S. to address both the roots and the symptoms in order to prevent future attacks, but also says that the U.S. has only focused on the symptoms.
“Making high-rise buildings stronger is important to save lives, but the U.S. has absolutely rejected the path of going after root causes,” he says.
And according to Reppert, the U.S. has a long way to go.
“The ongoing mission for many decades ahead is improving the U.S. image overseas so that we don’t become the target for people who hate,” Reppert says. “That will be the biggest challenge we face in the future.”
—Staff writer Jenifer L. Steinhardt can be reached at email@example.com.